What Colour is the Chameleon?

May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

What Colour is the Chameleon?

Preliminary study (vector drawing) for painting. The painting will measure approximately 50cm x 50cm – the chameleon will thus appear at life size. 

I recently made a visit to the Alfred Denny Museum with Professor Tim Birkhead, honorable curator, and the photographer Karl Hurst.

The Alfred Denny Museum is a small, Victorian-style museum housed within the Animal and Plant Sciences Department of Sheffield University. There are a number of traditional glass cases within, organised in such a way that they offer representatives from each of the major phyla of animal taxonomy. While I was there I encountered two chameleon specimens. The first, a suspiciously glossy taxidermy specimen, was brightly but somewhat artificially coloured. The other – considerably more ‘fleshy’ – was mounted in a glass box filled with formaldehyde. This chameleon was a rather unappealing grey. Attached to the glass was a neat, handwritten – but quite prosaic – label. It was clear, easy to read, and said: chameleon.

By coincidence I had been reading about the chameleon in a book entitled Ciferae by Tom Tyler. Ciferae is a bold and creative investigation into the intellectual parameters of the question of the animal; in Steve Baker’s words it offers “an audacious account of what it is not to be human”. In the first chapter Tyler quotes from philosopher J.L Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. The seventh ‘lecture’ in Sense and Sensibilia concerns the complex set of concepts denoted by the word real. One of the many uses to which the word is put is as an ‘adjuster word’: a linguistic device that moderates the innumerable – and largely unforeseeable – demands of the world upon language:

We have the word “pig” for instance, and a fairly clear idea which animals, among those we … commonly encounter, are and are not so called. But one day we come across a new kind of animal, which looks and behaves very much as pigs do, but not quite as pigs do; it is somehow different.

Given this encounter we have a choice of potential responses: stay silent, invent an entirely new word for this pig-like creature or, more probably, say that these animals are like pigs but, if pressed, perhaps go on to admit that they are not true pigs .. or real pigs …

So where does this lead in terms of the question formulated in the title of this post? What is the true or real colour of the chameleon? The following quote is extracted from Bernhard Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia:

Colour change in chameleons  … is not so pronounced as is often thought … Although chameleons can often match themselves to their surroundings … their colouration is not necessarily related to that of the background. The motivational state of the animal determines its colour to a considerably greater extent.

It is clear that neither of the two chameleons that I encountered within the Alfred Denny Museum exhibit the true or real colour of the chameleon. One has been bleached to a deathly grey by the chemical used to preserve it from decay, the other looks fresher but its static, lacquered, stiffness makes it equally removed from reality. If such a thing as the real colour of a chameleon exists at all – and if it does it will vary wildly, depending on the emotional state of the animal – it exists within a dynamic flux. This could single out the chameleon as a unique, bright, and rather beautiful index – or pointer – towards something meaningful about our naming of things; about the contingent nature of human language – and the limitations of language – when it comes to our relationship with the natural world.

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