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Iridescence, Intimacies


There are more pressing matters than this potentially touchy matter of pressing close. The following story isn’t so much an apology for intimacy or some kind of championing of it, but rather the modest suggestion that intimacy organizes our experience of space and especially of surfaces. As such, it is in fact not so trivial or delicate after all. These are notes towards a reconceptualization of intimacy in light of new ways in which we can think of the surface.

Iridescence begins, as it were, at the surface. For the most part, in the world at large, it is visible among animals, some minerals, and even some plants. It is not obvious what the proper preposition here would be—visible on, visible in, and so on. It is a trace or residue of the surface interacting with air and light, the mediums of vision. Let us consider iridescence as a Denkfigur for surfaces. What I intend here by invoking the Denkfigur, itself a contested term, is merely to underscore that the relationship being suggested between iridescence and surfaces is not one of metaphor, analogy, or exemplification. It is precisely a petering out into mere metaphorics and lyricism that this Denkfigur allows us to avoid when speaking of surfaces. It can be considered a navigational tool because it guides and organizes our thinking, indeed, configures our thought.

Iridescence is a visual phenomenon. The weird thing about it is that it seems to exist only insofar as it is seen. Essential to iridescence is its viewing geometry—iridescence is the exhibition of “vivid colors which change with the angle of incidence or viewing due to optical wave interference in the multilayer structure present at the wavelength scale underneath the surface”; it is the “visual characteristic attributed to surfaces that change in color with viewing angle.” This is what is meant by the claim that iridescence is only insofar as it is seen.

Iridescence is a phenomenon that has been formally recognized since as early as classical antiquity, as evinced by poikilos, a secular Greek word used to refer to dappled coloring, such as the skin of a leopard or the many-colored, indeed iridescent, scales of a snake. And throughout history, this phenomenon has recurrently caught the attention of the likes of Newton and Darwin. But it is only recently that concerted, systematic efforts—across various fields—have been made to study this phenomenon. But here we are not so much interested in the scientific history of iridescence, but rather in gleaning from these observations new dimensions of this puzzling, dazzling, seemingly superficial play of light and color.

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