[Excerpted from Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action (Manifesto) by JF Martel]
Published in 1927, H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Colour Out of Space“ can be read as a prophecy of this new spectral age that isolates the properly aesthetic component of the social order that would rise in the postwar era. An unnamed narrator attempts to uncover the truth behind a “blasted heath” shunned by the people of a rural New England county. From a possibly insane old man, he learns that a meteorite fell at that spot several decades ago, bringing with it a diabolical entity from outer space. Interestingly the creature does not take the form of the usual space invader but of a mass of unearthly color. As the story unfolds we learn how this malignant color warped and withered the surrounding vegetation, mutated wildlife and livestock, and caused the madness or death of the unfortunate souls who lived closest to its lair.
Twice in the novella we are told that the monster is “just a color,” a phrase that, considering what this creature does to people and the land, seems so inappropriate as to make the atmosphere all the more sinister for it. In point of fact, no color is “just” a color; that is precisely the notion that the narrator of “The Colour Out of Space” is doing his best to suppress. As Jung observed, colors signal the most primal manifestationsof the archetypes in dreams and art, a truth well known to the alchemists who used color as a basic element of their system. The Tibetan Book of the Dead devotes many verses to the colors of the lights that fill the bardo realm where sentient beings wander after bodily death. In our own day, the neuropsychology of color is of prime interest to market scientists bent on developing the most efficient ways to influence consumers nonverbally. Accordingly, everything in Lovecraft’s story tells us that there is more to mere color than meets the eye, and that the arrival of colors alien to a natural environment represents changes that go beyond mere cosmetics.
Lovecraft’s creature is a symbol of something that, at the time he wrote, was just coming into being. The prophecy develops through a number of rifts in the text, some of which align the extraterrestrial entity with technical innovations still nascent at the time the novella was written. For one we learn that the meteorite fell in 1882, which happens to be the year Thomas Edison switched on the world’s first commercial power station in New York City. Furthermore the scientists who study the meteorite discover that its chemical composition bears an affinity with silicon, a metalloid that, unbeknownst to Lovecraft, would enable the development of the semiconductor, without which there would be no digital age. Finally, the effect of the preternatural color on plants and wildlife is eerily prescient of radiation sickness—the radioactivity of electronic devices being common knowledge now. Through these and other elements, the story connects the advent of alien light and color to wider technological processes that have transformed the landscape. It is significant, I think, that the narrator of the story is a surveyor who has come to inspect a tract of wilderness soon to be submerged by a new water reservoir, the goal of which is to bring water to the inhabitants of the expanding urban areas. Though Lovecraft takes pains to describe the ecological damage that the color causes, he leaves it to the reader to note the ironic fact that the impact of the reservoir will make the alien’s devastation seem minor by comparison. At one point the monster snatches up a boy near a well, leaving only a lantern and a bucket as evidence of its attack. These two objects can be read as clues connecting the luminescent creature, symbolized by the lantern, with the catastrophic reservoir, symbolized by the bucket. Hero and villain are thus revealed as aspects of a single invasive process that is about to transform the New England wilderness into an illuminated suburban wasteland. Incidentally the American Northeast has since become the worst place on earth for light pollution.
If someone who lived before the rise of electric power were given a visionary fly-by of the earth in 2015, the first thing he or she would notice, without a doubt, would be the colored lights. “The Colour Out of Space” anticipates the phenomenology of the urban sprawl that was just beginning to alter the fabric of life in Lovecraft’s time. By envisioning the danger in the form of a Technicolor invasion (“It was just a colour— but not a colour of our earth or heavens.”), the story makes “spectrality” a distinctive feature of the future.
The term “spectral” connotes both the idea of a spectrum—the array of light and color that marks the outward appearance of our hypermedia landscape—and the notion of ghosts, that is, of dead beings that believe they are alive. When luminous representations become so pervasive as to eclipse other, more direct sensations, we lose more than our sense of perspective; we begin to lose our sense of self. The prime living environment offered to us today consists almost entirely of coded spaces, designed objects, staged events, and interfaces conceived to elicit specific cognitive responses from us. The examples range from traffic lights, advertisements, and news propaganda to manufactured catchwords, pornography, and products designed in light of the latest neurological research for optimal “userfriendliness.” Left with little room for anything truly personal to determine our behavior, the spectral forces begin to think for us, often with such coercive influence that only outmoded terms such as “possession” can accurately describe the effect. How else can we make sense of the long lineups that materialize at electronic shops on the release dates of gadgets bound to become obsolete in a matter of years, or of the chaos that marks Black Friday sales, eliciting on each occasion the same expressions of shock even though their occurrence was clearly anticipated? In an ironic twist, the very Enlightenment that was expected to rid the world of ghosts, demons, irrationality, and superstition laid the groundwork for the production of a new phantasmagoria. The convergence of ubiquitous media, artificial intelligence, psychotropic drugs, electronic surveillance, and invasive marketing has thrown us into a fluctuant in-between realm of spectral luminosities and wandering spirits, flickering images, and disembodied voices—this, even as the old ghosts, real or imagined or both, continue to dance at the edge of our narrowed field of vision.