Phrenology - How to Tell Your Own and Your Friends Character from the Shape of the Head

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Phrenology thereby offered a way both to know oneself and to change oneself. The exercise of particular mental faculties, causes the exercise, and consequent enlargement, of corresponding portions of the brain. Man is not compelled to carry all his faults, excesses, and defects to the grave. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. The idea of the reader actively contributing to the construction of the text has become something of a commonplace by now, advocated by a range of twentieth-century experimental movements that includes the French New Novel, the Fiction Collective and the Language Poets, to name a few.

Whitman teases the brain with paradox and contradiction on occasion, but his most characteristic manner is aggressively straightforward and accessible, requiring little of the reader beyond turning the page. The demand is actually elsewhere—or directs the reader elsewhere. Rather, he cautions against exactly that, turning the reader away from the text. Such admonition borders on abolishing the text. Whitman imagined world reform of such magnitude as to do away with the need for poetry. The work to be done goes beyond the page but takes up its image, for the gymnastic text is not the text as such but a turning toward the world as text.

Whitman and phrenology shared a reliance on tropes of textuality, figurations of human character and action as forms of writing or printing. Standing beside a young girl, with his hands upon her head, forthwith that head under his deft manipulation turns tell-tale Democracy its elf was believed to hinge on it. Nature has ordained that we do not hide the light of our souls under the bushels of impenetrability but that we should set them on the hill of conspicuosity, so that all that are with insight may observe them.

They come to the surface.

Haunting such insistence is an anxiety over the limits of knowability, the specter of an opaque latency resistant to full disclosure. Words compensate for the not-done, improving on deeds hemmed in by caution and convention. To balance this indispensable abnegation, the free minds of poets relieve themselves, and strengthen and enrich mankind with free flights in all the directions not tolerated by ordinary society. Then spend the remainder of your lives, endeavoring not only to reach the standard Practitioners such as the Fowlers, who were, after all, running a business, appear to have sweetened their readings to make them appeal to their clients.

I am rather inclined to think he neglects to tell the evil passion as in my case and many others none were noticed which I am confident we possessed. Perhaps self-interest prompts him. It offered a hopeful hermeneutic, banishing the threat of dark recesses with an assurance that everything could be brought to light, everything seen, everything brought to the surface. One of the critics of phrenology, Dr.

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Poe, though he favorably reviewed phrenological journals early on and used phrenological categories in some of the characterizations in his fiction, went on to write parodies of it. Twain dealt skeptically with it as well. If, as Allen F. It valorized obtrusion, surface, apparency, warding off the obscurities and indeterminacies of recess, crevice, fold. It was also white in another sense, serving other senses of whiteness. While its advocates preached self-improvement and social reform, the emphasis was by and large individualistic, seeking to better society through individual cultivation of the virtues of self-help—thrift, hard work, purity, perseverance.

Phrenology in fact shared with these notions an assumption that human surfaces offer incontestable evidence of the qualities, capacities and traits not only of individuals but of groups. Its attention to cranial bumps is consistent with and occupies a place within a mode of reading human prowess which also attends to skin color, hair texture and other phenotypic and physiognomic features.


Representative John A. Whitman, as he was with phrenology, was on intimate, speaking terms with such notions. He was an admirer of John L. Like phrenology and along with phrenology, manifest destiny provided a hopeful hermeneutic, offering assurances of legibility, providentially mandated certainty, self-evident truth. Whitman was greatly attracted to such externalist, self-evidentiary ways of knowing, the valorization of a certain articulacy and eloquence to be found in the available, on the surface, in the overt.

His drive, power and originality as a poet derive in large measure from that attraction; the majority and most characteristic features of his work are given over to it. But it was extremely popular all over the world during the 19th century, finding converts among reform-minded Bengalis in Kolkata, India, and colonial settlers in Australia. As part of my research into the global history of phrenology, I came across the real-life Calvin Candie. He was called Charles Caldwell , a doctor from Kentucky who revelled in both phrenology and slave ownership.

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As in the film, Caldwell was a Europhile, travelling to Paris in the s where he picked up the latest medical craze. He later returned to France in the s in order to hobnob with Pierre Marie Dumoutier, a phrenologist just back from a three-year round-the-world voyage. There Caldwell could practise phrenology, feeling for bumps on the heads of Tahitians and Marquesas Islanders. In fact, Caldwell even boasted of being one of the earliest experts in phrenology in the United States.

Caldwell deployed phrenology in almost exactly the same manner as the fictional Candie. In he wrote to a friend claiming that "tameableness" explained the apparent ease with which Africans could be enslaved. This was a standard phrenological argument. Areas located towards the top and back of the skull, such as "Veneration" and "Cautiousness", were routinely claimed to be large in Africans.

His correspondent concurred, writing: "They are slaves because they are tameable. It's worth emphasising that these words are not from a Tarantino script, crafted for Hollywood shock value. They were written by a slave owner desperate to preserve his brutal way of life.

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And, while the physical violence of slavery is masked in Caldwell's letters, they betray his warped sense of morality. In a letter written on Christmas Eve , Caldwell made the outrageous claim: "My slaves live much more comfortably than I do. The fact that phrenology was used to justify slavery is perhaps unsurprising. What would one expect from such an overtly racist science? But it wasn't just the slavers.

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My research revealed that some of the most vocal anti-slavery campaigners of the 19th century were also advocates of phrenology, and used it to justify their stance. Lucretia Mott , a particularly uncompromising American abolitionist, sent her children to phrenological lectures and spoke of the "truth of phrenology" in letters to friends.